BWW Review: CRY-BABY is a Rockin' Fun Look at Privilege and Classism
New Line Theatre, whose tagline is fittingly #MusicalTheatreAF, opens their 29th season with Cry-Baby, the 2007 musical with book by Mark O'Donnell & Thomas Meehan and songs by David Javerbaum & Adam Schlesinger. It is based on Cry-Baby the film, written and directed by Hairspray creator, John Waters. Let me just pause here and say if you have only ever seen the film, you're missing out, as the musical has a much more cohesive, developed, and satisfying storyline.
New Line has a reputation as the "bad boy of musical theatre," staging shows that are both highly entertaining and thought-provoking, often illuminating the underlying ugliness of humanity. Cry-Baby, in this spirit (first produced by New Line in 2012 with first regional production rights after New York) shines a humorous and ironic light on American conformist self-righteousness. It overtly magnifies the injustices of classism by poking holes in the illusion of stature and wealth as measures of success. It is a smart and ridiculous comedy, well-executed by its talented cast and crew, under the expert direction of Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor.
The rockin' New Line Band, directed by Nicolas Valdez and Marc Vincent, greets us cleverly in the overture which sets the tone for the evening. It's Baltimore in 1954. An uptight society woman, Mrs. Vernon-Williams (Margeau Steinau), welcomes us all to her country club's anti-polio picnic where vaccinations will be administered. In fact, as she announces, the Women's Club voted on it, and came out 56-8 against polio! As the squeaky clean, upper-class "squares" enjoy the picnic, a group of juvenile delinquents (known in Baltimore as "drapes") arrive on the scene for their vaccinations, causing a kerfuffle. Included in this mixed-bag mix of teenage wrongdoers are the suggestively dressed Wanda (Jaclyn Amber), the enormously pregnant Pepper (Reagan Deschaine), and the facially disfigured Hatchet-Face (Sarah Gene Dowling). Their leather jacket-clad bad-boy ringleader, Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker (Caleb Miofsky), who has unfortunately been orphaned by his pacifist parents (accused of Communism and subsequently framed for arson), bursts onto the scene, late to the party.
Good girl Allison (Grace Langford), also orphaned but now in the care of her grandmother, Mrs. Vernon-Williams, instantly falls for Cry-Baby, and he for her. She admires his freedom and he admires her open mind. Discovering they are both singers, they burst into song at being "infected" by one another in a doowop number "I'm Infected" that almost takes your breath away, until Grandmother abruptly interrupts the love-fest. Mrs. Vernon-Williams then promptly shuts down an invitation Cry-Baby extends to Allison to join him singing later at the Jukebox Jamboree at Turkey Point. Allison will not be seen with a drape at that "Redneck Riviera" and Grandmother will do whatever it takes to redirect Allison's attentions away from these rock-and-rolling delinquents back to the squeaky clean kids, led by the super-square barbershop quartet singer, Baldwin Blandish (Jake Blonstein), who also has the hots for Allison.
When Allison sneaks out anyway and congratulates herself for showing up at Turkey Point without her grandmother's permission, bad girls Wanda, Pepper, and Hatchet-Face smirk and tell Allison if she's going to be a bad girl, she's going to have to do "A Whole Lot Worse" in a song and dance number that is stunningly entertaining. Meanwhile, Lenora (AJ Surrell), who seems to float between the drapes and the squares, expresses her own adoration for Cry-Baby. It's been pretty obvious by now from Surrell's sidesplitting physical humor (which might have been upstaging in the hands of a lesser skilled actor but is brilliant here) that she's a bin full of nuts for Cry-Baby and that he has no interest in her. Regardless, she sidles up to the mic and dedicates a song that is "sadder than a wagon full of wet kittens" to her obsession, Cry-Baby.
Ignoring Lenora's come-ons, Cry-Baby invites Allison to sing along in "Baby Baby Baby Baby (Baby Baby)" but Allison gets shy and claims she can't because doesn't know the words. This is hilarious, since, just reading the song's title you and I are fully apprised of almost every lyric of the entire song. There are other funny moments in this fledgling courtship, such as when Cry-Baby offers Allison a swig of Robitussin from his flask. "No thank you, I'm not sick," she replies innocently, before a madly funny make-out scene commences in "Girl, Can I Kiss You With Tongue?" The performance is over-the-top, and the audience fully appreciates the comedic effort that goes into pulling this number off with such polish.
Realizing this romance is a thing now, that he has finally found someone who gets him, Cry-Baby leaves momentarily to fetch a gift for Allison - his prized, personalized gold-plated guitar pick. In the short time while he is gone, however, Turkey Point has been set aflame by the squares. Cry-Baby, who is clearly (in the mind of the law) a second-generation arsonist, and his friends including Allison, are arrested, confirming that, if you're not on the upper layer of society, as the song goes, "You Can't Beat the System."
Cry-Baby tells the judge he'll take the blame for the fire if Allison and his friends go free. He tells Mrs. Vernon-Williams in earnest that he's guilty only of loving her granddaughter. But justice must be served, and while Allison goes free because of her grandmother's social stature, all the drapes are punished with time.
As Act 2 begins, everyone is miserable with their new lots in life. Truly, it seems, you can't beat the system. The law, if no one else, will always ensure separation of the dregs in society from the high-class. But as July 4th (it's like "Square Christmas") rolls around, Cry-Baby hears Allison singing on the radio from his jail cell. She, trying to move on with her life, is blindsided in a surprise marriage proposal on-air by Baldwin, and because she doesn't want to hurt Baldwin or embarrass him, agrees to the engagement. Cry-Baby, of course, is heartbroken and devises an elaborate jailbreak.
"A Little Upset" is the number during which this happens, and it features amazing choreography and strong dancing with high-energy physical humor and carefully maneuvered physical hijinks, expertly utilizing the mainstage and aisles of The Marcelle Theatre. A sincere shout-out to Michelle Sauer for her choreography on this, as it is interesting and lively, fitting big, dynamic action into a small space.
It is only when Grandmother overhears Baldwin admitting to and bragging about burning down Turkey Point that she softens to Cry-Baby's fondness for Allison, admitting that she too did something wrong, once, and she's going to put aside her self-righteousness to right that wrong. In a wonderfully touching "I Did Something Wrong Once" Mrs. Vernon-Williams finally reveals her own guilt and vulnerability which helps to free the innocent drapes, who she now admits have been wrongly implicated.
In the end, Baldwin challenges Cry-Baby to a sing-off to "win" Allison's affections, and while Cry-Baby says Allison should get to make her own choices, he participates. And of course, Cry-Baby, his Elvis-like moves, and ultimately, the badassery of rock and roll win Allison's heart.
In the end, everyone is convinced that this happy ending will prevail forever and ever, as the entire company entertains us with the closing number, "Nothing Bad's Ever Gonna Happen Again." It is ludicrous, supremely entertaining, and leaves the entire audience laughing. But in case you didn't get your fill of humor, the New Line Band throws in a little extra cleverness as the audience exits.
While the entire company is strong, it must be noted that Miofsky, who is a senior at Webster Groves High School, makes his professional theatre debut in Cry-Baby. He and New Line favorite Langford are a force to be reckoned with in this production, each commanding the audience fully with a robust singing voice and excellent acting skills. Together, they have a fabulous on-stage chemistry. Marshall Jennings as Cry-Baby's friend Dupree W. Dupree (wooo!) also delivers an unmistakably powerful performance.
The minimalist set is just enough, designed by Rob Lippert, with period-appropriate costuming by Colene and Evan Fornachon. All of it works in perfect harmony with Kenneth Zinkl's lighting design and Ryan Day's sound design. There is much verve and artistic unity overall, with seven cast members making their New Line debuts.
What Miller and Dowdy-Windsor are doing at New Line Theatre is something special to be sure. They are known for breaking the rules of musical theatre, for being the bad boys, and the result is a fresh, progressive theatre experience. If you like art that is in-your-face, not shy, and politically provocative, you'll want to invest your time and resources supporting their work.
Cry-Baby plays just one more weekend, ending its run on October 19. Snag your tickets now, as it is playing to a full house. For more information on Cry-Baby and New Line's exciting upcoming season, http://www.newlinetheatre.com/.